Stray Questions About Two Befuddling 2012 Movies

Post contains mild spoilers for Django Unchained, especially if you somehow missed the news that Django kills everybody.

Two of the most challenging movies I saw last year came in December: Django Unchained, and Killing Them Softly. Try as I might, I never managed to cull my many and contradictory thoughts on these movies into a coherent post. Here are some orphaned ideas that continue to trouble me in conversations about the three:

1. Why have Django don the trappings of Calvin Candie in the closing frames of Django Unchained? I didn’t take notes when I saw Django, so I don’t recall the very last shot of the movie with precision. But when Django is done killing everyone on the Candieland plantation, he puts on what appear to be Calvin Candie’s clothes – the red smoking jacket, if nothing else, is certainly Candie’s. He also chomps down with satisfaction on the ivory cigar holder that Leonardo DiCaprio’s vicious dilettante slaveowner had wielded throughout the latter half of the movie. What precisely are we to make of Django stepping into the mantle of his enemy? It fits, roughly speaking, into some of the more unnerving themes from the rest of the film. It seems to reinforce Django’s disinterest in liberating anyone other than his wife, which the PostBourgie podcast crew spent significant time on in their rousing discussion of the flick.

The other costuming moment that stuck in my mind was Django’s choice, when Dr. King Schultz tells him he can pick his clothes, of a powder-blue outfit with high white socks and a white cravat. This got a hearty laugh in the Silver Spring, MD, theater where I saw the movie, and that includes me—it’s a good gag, if somewhat cheap. Looking back, I felt okay having laughed at it because its exploitation of modern stereotypes about black men and outlandish fashion choices fits Tarantino’s fundamentally fantastical project of putting a Blaxploitation twist on a Western homage set in the antebellum south. Shortly after the cheap gag of a smash cut to Django gone dandy, he’s whipping an overseer while wearing the same getup, and I was half expecting to hear Curtis Mayfield cut into the soundtrack. And once on board with Tarantino’s aims, it’s tough to single out elements of it as going too far.

Still, that endpoint bothers me. Django relishes stepping into his wife’s owner’s clothes and signature accessory just a little too much for me not to feel queasy.

2. Did Killing Them Softly stink, or was it brilliant, or did it brill-stink? I did take notes while watching Andrew Dominik’s overstylized, beautifully acted, and well-written hitman movie. They include, on the top of the first page, things like “this kinda sucks” and “pacing??” and my little glyph that represents the universal PG-rated sign for self-indulgence. The movie is set in late 2008, and its only soundtrack is news clips of various speeches from President Bush and Hank Paulson and President-elect Barack Obama, on the financial crisis and our government’s response to it. A couple of these moments could have been a masterstroke of subtlety, but Dominik prefers to beat you over the head with the parallels between the inept criminal organization in the background of the story, and the ineptitude of every other major American institution. If someone described Killing Them Softly as a crime thriller filtered through a few reads of “Twilight of the Elites” and a few Occupy general assembly meetings, you’d be intrigued, right? The cruelty of Killing Them Softly is it heavy-hands everything that should be interesting about that idea, and leaves critics wishing for the Coen brothers version of this picture.

So why am I holding the door open to the possibility that it’s brilliant? For one thing, the performances and dialogue are marvelous. Richard Jenkins’ squeamish mob go-between is funny and dour and occupies basically the same place within his organization as Paul Bettany’s character in the excellent Margin Call did within that movie’s not-Lehman Brothers financial firm. James Gandolfini’s prideful, depressive, unraveling hitman is captivating every time he’s on screen. Brad Pitt’s protagonist hitman with a simple code is enjoyable to watch, most of all in his immaculately written conversations with the Jenkins and Gandolfini characters. But more than the performances, what keeps a torch half-lit in my mind for Killing Them Softly is how relentlessly unsexy and frustrated and dysfunctional and inconsistent an underworld it portrays. Our expectations for crime movies are that they’ll be all efficacy and power and languid allure, and that a lot of folks will get killed in a lot of awesome ways. Most of all, everybody will be cool. They’ll talk cool and smoke cool and shoot even cooler. Nobody does any of these things in Killing Them Softly, and nobody is particularly cool, including Pitt. And the big climax isn’t gunplay, but a heavyhanded yet effective soliloquy about the ways America lies to itself to sleep at night. By refusing to give me anything that I expected from a gangster flick, Killing Them Softly made me tempted to forgive its cinematic sins.

Teasing over these kinds of questions is part of what makes film so much fun, and I hope some of y’all have thoughts on these two movies.